Bees and beehives thrive despite threats

New Zealand bees and beehives are in rude health, although beekeepers cannot afford to be complacent.
MYTCHALL BRANSGROVE/FAIRFAX NZ

New Zealand bees and beehives are in rude health, although beekeepers cannot afford to be complacent.

Bees and beehives are blooming, Apiculture New Zealand (ApiNZ) says, citing figures showing a large increase in the numbers of beehives over the last 15 years. 

The industry group produced the statistics in response to a Lincoln University professor's contention that numbers are declining.

Actually, says Professor Stephen Wratten of the Bio-Protection Research Centre, his message got lost in translation and his news release should not have stated New Zealand's bee population was on the wane.

ApiNZ's figures show there has been an explosion in hive numbers in the last 15 years, from 300,000 to "nearing 700,000" today. There had been a slight dip in the early 2000s because of the pest varroa mite, when they dropped to 295,000.

Hive numbers grew by more than 70,000 in the past year alone.

READ MORE: Beehive numbers soar as keepers chase lucrative manuka honey profits

ApiNZ's figures are supported by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), which holds figures for the numbers of registered hives (570,000 in 2015), and also conducted a survey last year on bee colony loss and survival.

The survey showed annual hive losses were 11 per cent compared to 17 per cent in the northern hemisphere.

Wratten is the co-author of a new study which shows New Zealand stands to lose $295-728 million a year if the local honeybee population ever declined.

Up until now researchers have only carried out "desktop" calculations about the value of crops and the dependency of those crops on pollinators. Wratten says he and his colleague did field studies to arrive at a more direct estimation of the economic value of pollination.

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The scientists tested pak choi which was grown for seed. Some of the plants were covered with thin white mesh bags for varying time periods, preventing honeybees and flies, which are key pollinators for the crop, from accessing the plants.

Changes in seed yield, seeds per pod and proportion of unfertilised pods as a result of changing pollination rates were identified. The economic impact of varying pollination rates was then extrapolated to the main 18 pollination-dependent crops in New Zealand.

ApiNZ chief executive Daniel Paul said there were about 7000 beekeepers and the number continued to grow each year.

He acknowledged honey bees faced challenges from the varroa mite and other endemic viruses and bacteria. Scientists around the world were investigating how to address the problem of resistance to the treatments for varroa.

New Zealand's bee population contributed about $5 billion a year to the economy and they support about one-third of everything people eat. New Zealand's mānuka honey is some of the highest valued honey in the world.

MPI is about to repeat the bee survival survey, as well as carry out a bee pathogen programme to examine the factors affecting the health of bees.

"Through this programme data is being collected on clinical hive inspections, apiary management practices, apiary productivity and colony losses from sixty apiaries randomly selected throughout New Zealand every 6 months," said Scott Gallacher, deputy director-general regulation and assurance.

"Samples of bees from each apiary are being tested at MPI labs for total counts of varroa mites and fungal spores per bee, the presence of viruses, and quantitative tests for other specific pathogens. The first of five sampling rounds of 60 apiaries throughout New Zealand begins in September this year."

Gallacher said varroa resistance to pesticides among honey bee populations was a concern. It was being managed by beekeepers alternating pesticides and managing hives carefully.

MPI was also promoting on-farm overwintering and diverse feed sources to support bee health and nutrition, through schemes such as the Sustainable Farming Fund for the Trees for Bees programme for another three years.

 - Stuff

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